Bulgaria is holding a national referendum on October 25 on whether to introduce online voting, but political parties have done little more than the most minimal campaigning on the issue, leading head of state President Rossen Plevneliev to accuse them of neglect.
In office since January 2012, Plevneliev long has been campaigning for a referendum on electoral reform issues.
His ambitions were thwarted by the now-departed 2013/14 National Assembly in which the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms held sway. The proposal to hold a referendum was rejected in spite of a petition showing massive public support for the idea.
After the election of the current Parliament in October 2014, Plevneliev resumed his campaign, calling for a referendum on three questions – the introduction of a majoritarian element in the election of MPs, the introduction of compulsory voting, and electronic voting.
However, in July 2015, the National Assembly, where the largest party is Boiko Borissov’s GERB, the centre-right force that nominated Plevneliev as its presidential candidate in 2011, cut the three proposed questions down to just one, that on electronic voting. Plevneliev’s proposal to hold the referendum simultaneously with scheduled mayoral and municipal elections was accepted.
Plevneliev has made repeated public calls for participation in the referendum, but in the final week before the October 25 vote, expressed frustration at what he said was political parties’ neglect of the referendum.
He said that in order to break the pattern of politicians breaking their promises, as had often happened in the 25 years since the beginning of the transition to democracy in Bulgaria, the October 25 referendum should be the start of direct democracy focusing on important issues in the country.
About 6.8 million Bulgarians are eligible to vote in the referendum. Apart from the about 12 000 polling stations in Bulgaria, there will be a total of 309 polling stations in 45 countries abroad, most in the UK, United States, Spain and Germany.
For the outcome of the referendum to be binding on the National Assembly, at least 3.5 million eligible voters must cast ballots, a number based on a formula using turnout in the most recent parliamentary election. An indecisive outcome will leave matters at the discretion of the National Assembly, as happened in the nuclear power referendum in January 2013.
In early October, a poll by the reputable Alpha Research agency found that more than a third of eligible Bulgarian voters lacked awareness of the referendum.
The agency said that analysts saw the weak commitment among political parties to supporting a yes vote as a sign of their reluctance to change the status quo.
While awareness among voters was low, those resident in Bulgaria indicated that 77 per cent would vote in favour of introducing electronic voting. Those in favour held that it would make casting a ballot more accessible, especially for Bulgarian expatriates and for people with disabilities, and would reduce the risk of manipulation of the vote through corruption such as vote-buying and the exercise of pressure on voters by their employers.
Alpha Research said that 49 per cent of voters resident in Bulgaria intended voting in the referendum.
Parties and coalitions that have formally registered their support for a yes vote include Borissov’s GERB, the centre-right Reformist Bloc coalition, the nationalist Patriotic Front and Georgi Purvanov’s socialist breakaway ABC. Those in favour of a no vote include the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and Ataka, the latter one of the two smallest parties in the National Assembly. Those opposed argue that online voting will worsen electoral manipulation.
In the absence of high-profile active campaigning by political parties, much of the campaigning has been done by civil organisations and NGOs, through street appearances and via social networks such as Facebook.
At polling stations on October 25, there will be two ballot boxes, one for the referendum and the other for the municipal elections. The Central Election Commission said on October 23 that voters would not be specifically asked whether they wanted one ballot paper or two, in the latter case to be able to vote in the referendum.
The Alpha Research poll was self-funded and carried out on a nationally representative basis from October 1 to 5 among 1026 adult Bulgarians.